How To Be Gay

When I was doing my BA, a friend told me a story about her younger brother. As I remember it, while growing up, her brother loved Bette Midler and Patsy Cline despite the fact that they were performers from and for another generation. He’d collect photos, news stories, anything else he found, and paste them into elaborately decorated and carefully maintained scrapbooks. He was extremely proud of these books and showed them off to friends and family, who took them as signs of his creativity and individuality.

Eventually when he was older, the brother realized he was attracted to men, came out as gay, and it is at this point that the story of the scrapbooks takes a tragic turn.

Once out, the brother began to meet other gay men, and it wasn’t long before he realized that Bette and Patsy were common gay obsessions, both of them campy as hell. Learning this, he understood that his scrapbooks weren’t simply testaments to his creativity. They were billboards advertising his emerging sexuality to anyone with the sense to read the signs. He was in other words the the object of a painful irony, his scrapbooks were now embarrassments, and as I remember the story, he threw them out, although I’m less certain of that than the rest.

I thought of this story reading Halperin’s book because his object of study is precisely these odd, recognizably gay cultural obsessions. The book is wordy and overlong and, in chapter after chapter, Halperin finds reasons to discuss at length Joan Crawford, his own camp obsession. But despite the weakness of the writing and the seemingly impossible scope of his project, Halperin’s descriptions of experiences like those of my friend’s brother often ring true and his attempts to explain how they work are thoughtful and thought provoking.

How To Be Gay

The Price of Salt

Todd Haynes’s Carol offers so careful and so powerful a reading of Highsmith’s The Price of Salt that it acted as a screen between me and the novel, directing my attention and shaping my responses. And so for me, Carol and Therese are as glamorous, sophisticated and brave in the book as they are in the film.

I wonder though: if I hadn’t seen the adaptation, would the attention to gloves and furs and scarves and purses and all the other recurring details of dress that I read as glamour, would they instead have seemed fetishistic? Would the silences and hesitations of the women as they test their sense of what’s possible between them have seemed so romantic? Would the brutality of the men’s rejection of their relationship have upset me more than it did?

Whatever the case, my movie-addled sense of the novel is that Carol and Therese are enjoying a slow-moving game of cat and mouse in which both of them are cats and both of them are playing mouse.

The Price of Salt

Highsmith on January

January.

It was all things. And it was one thing, like a solid door. It’s cold sealed the city in a gray capsule. January was moments, and January was a year. January rained the moments down, and froze them in her memory: the woman she saw peering anxiously by the light of a match at the names in a dark doorway, the man who scribbled a message and handed it to his friend before they parted on the sidewalk, the man who ran a block for a bus and caught it. Every human action seemed to yield a magic. January was a two-faced month, jangling like jester’s bells, crackling like snow crust, pure as any beginning, grim as an old man, myseriously familiar yet unknown, like a word one can almost but not quite define.

–Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt

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Arrival

Aliens arrive at twelve different sites on Earth. They are unavoidably menacing—their ships hover impossibly over land and sea, they manipulate gravity, and they look like slow–moving giant facehuggers—but nothing they do is hostile. Two scholars, one a linguist, one a physicist, have to figure out how to communicate with them while also keeping various militaries from blowing things up.

This isn’t an action film. Violence threatens, but when it happens, it happens off-screen, structuring the story as a deadline or countdown. Camera movements are slow, the shots composed. Both are independent and consistently meaningful channels of information, a feature of sophisticated communication explicitly celebrated in the dialogue. Bracing thoughtfulness is the dominant tone of the narrative. The dominant activities are listening, studying, and remembering.

Despite the aliens, their technology and the narrative’s mind–bending approach to time, the focus of the film is squarely on two educated people’s efforts to solve cooperatively an unabashedly intellectual problem. Their antagonists are the uneducated and thoughtless people around them who are driven by suspicion, anger, and fear and who are urged on by a hysterical and irresponsible media. These people cut off possibilities for cooperation, prefer violence to patience, and, whether committing suicide, looting, sabotaging, or inciting or threatening others, consistently act badly.

The fantasy of this science fiction is that humane intelligence wins out in the end, a triumph that manifests not as spoils but as a book about translation, a learned work offering help to those wishing to understand the thoughts and ideas of Others in their own words.

Arrival

Caliban’s War

This novel was frustratingly close to a do-over of Leviathan Wakes. Yes there was variation—a different world in the Belt, an introduction to life on Earth, new characters—but it was still a fake war providing cover for a rogue experiment involving the protomolocule.

What saved it for me was Avasarala and the most unexpected last–page surprise I’ve read in a long time.

I have the third book and will get to it eventually, but I’m less enthusiastic than I was after finishing the first volume.

Caliban’s War

Teen Wolf, Season Three

This is the season that broke my binge.

The script and direction are under control in a way they weren’t in the weirdly wonderful first season. As a result, this season manages to gather up loose ends and weave them all tightly back into the fabric of two main story arcs.

In the first of these, Scott becomes an alpha wolf (read: real man). In the second, Stiles overcomes and banishes a mischievous trickster spirit that operated as a second personality. Both arcs signal that fun time is over, and by the end of the season, the group of guys has broken up into a gang of three straight couples (some real, some potential), and the gay characters have either left town or dropped out of sight.

This shift is obviously a let-down and more than earns Teen Wolf a spot on my long list of those TV series in which I have over-invested by rooting for off-story readings that cannot possibly pan out as the show develops.1 Unlike these previous series though, the disappointment I feel this time around is friendly and free from frustration. I like the cast, like the set up, and still like the show.

And yes, if I’m honest, I knew all along that the fun couldn’t last: a mainstream show directed at adolescents, especially one with a break-out star with a budding movie career, cannot (or at least will not) pick apart the seams of contemporary masculinity for very long, even if it’s fun to pretend otherwise while binging. The best that can be hoped for, I think, is for the show to be “cool” and to signify that coolness by being “cool with” gay people.

And that’s what’s happened here in spades.

Teen Wolf, Season Three

Teen Wolf, Season Two

On the surface, Season Two throttles back on the guys-in-the-locker-room gayness of the first season, while doubling down on Scott and Alison’s romance plot. There’s also some kind of killer lizard on the loose, a menacing grandfather up to no good, and a dive into lore through subplots that lays the groundwork for future seasons. Which is a lot of ground for a single season. Of all of this, my favourite sub-sub-plot involves a mid-teens rich kid giving his girlfriend a key to his parent’s place. It’s a silly but sweet fantasy vision of what it’s like to be a grown-up that turns out to play a vital role in the resolution of the central storyline.

That all said, no matter how far you pull back on the throttle (and the writers are clearly trying to do so), it’s hard to quell the anarchic, queer connotations unleashed in the first season in one go. And it’s going to be that much harder if you make the villain a frequently shirtless Abercrombie model who also happens to be one of the guys. Or if you let a running joke be about how Stiles knows everything about how Scott looks. All of which is just my way of saying that this season remains ripe for willful misreading even if the low-hanging fruit is gone.

The season’s highlight—and when googling for images I discovered it is a scene that has driven the internet into a frenzy—takes place in a pool and involves Stiles, Derek and the lizard monster. The lizard is afraid of water (don’t ask), so Stiles treads water for hours at the center of the school’s pool holding a helpless Derek in his arms and saving them both from the increasingly frustrated lizard.

The internet believes this is love, and I concur.

Writing this post (and the last one as well), I realize how ridiculous everything about this show sounds. And it is. But is also too much damn fun. And “Sterek” must be celebrated.

So:

(You’re welcome. But enjoy it while it lasts. I’ve seen the next season and there is trouble on the horizon.)

Teen Wolf, Season Two

Cloud Atlas

I don’t know what I would have thought about this movie if I had seen it when it came out. I disliked Tom Hanks in it enough to find him distracting, and the first hour or so of the story’s jumping was incredibly frustrating to follow, not least because I couldn’t understand half of what was said in the 19th and 24th century sections.

And yet, as the first hour drew to a close, things began to fall into a rhythm, and I was hooked by the play between the stories and by Bae Doona’s and Ben Whishaw’s performances. I was also quite moved by the voiceover discussing the conventionality of our world. (I haven’t read the novel, so I don’t know if the speech was lifted from it.)

In actual fact I’ve seen the movie not when if first came out but months after watching Sense8, and as a result, everything about my experience of the movie stands in relation to this more recent show. Viewed in this light, Cloud Atlas feels like a test to me. Everything it attempts is worked out with more space, more detail, and greater success in Sens8. More importantly though, I can’t shake the feeling that the television series pursues a more fundamental formal experiment than the film does.

In the film, the different stories are connected genealogically as part of a larger narrative but remain distinct one from the other, like beads lined up on a string. The film’s experiment is to present these stories simultaneously as a collage rather than as a sequence. At the most basic level, this allows the climactic events in each of the stories to be presented together as the climax of the film. More ambitiously, this narrative collage encourages us to read the events in one story as relating to or informing events in another. To the extent that something like a karmic notion of cause and effect is in play (it is), the resonances created across stories are clearly thematic.

Yet, if I’m ruthless in looking at the movie, all of its narrative fireworks boil down to the fragmentation, intermixing and then juggling of multiple stories. Everything is taken to an extreme, yes, and the technical challenges involved are enormous and perhaps unprecedented in their scale. But the basic project is recognizable, even if it is virtuoso work. (To be clear: I love virtuoso work.)

It seems to me that Sens8 does something much more radical than the film. As I explained in an earlier post, the series uses classical Hollywood techniques (cross-cutting, etc.) to imagine and then to represent an entirely new mental landscape and an entirely new conception of character. The fact that that landscape and that conception of character have a stoner-esque “We are all connected” quality to them is less significant than the fact that they manifest without digital tricks. They’re the product of montage, the most fundamental process of cinema. The austere simplicity of this return to so basic a device is beautiful in its own right, but when set against the power of the effect it produces, the brilliance of what the Wachoski’s are doing shines.

Cloud Atlas is impressive, but Sense8 feels powerful and large. Here’s hoping Netflix sees the show through to its full five seasons.

Cloud Atlas

The Beautiful Room Is Empty

This is the second in Edmund White’s series of quasi-autobiographical novels and like the first, it follows a precocious and uncannily mature youth as he grows into adulthood.

Two threads of story stood out for me as I read. The first is the portrait of a youth as a budding artist. The youth knows he is a writer, an author. What he doesn’t yet know is what to do in order to author a story. He writes endlessly night after night, but he can’t figure out how to make something of it.

The second thread is a tale of sexual discovery. In it the youth has no idea who he is. What he knows is where to find men to have sex with. He trolls toilets endlessly, yet he is in turmoil because, although he recognizes a kinship with the men he meets, he doesn’t recognize himself in what he sees and defines himself against them. This leaves him incredibly alone.

These two threads of story mirror each other. In the first, the youth knows who he wishes to be but he isn’t sure what to do or how to act. In the second, he knows what do to, has the confidence to act, but suffers wondering what kind of person he is.

These two threads come together in the final pages of the book when the youth, now living in New York and playing out his efforts at sexual and artistic self-discovery in apartments in Greenwich Village and on the beaches of Fire Island, finds himself caught up in the Stonewall riots. These are iconic and historic events: in those nights of protest, a public queer community emerges onto the streets.

In the novel’s account of the riots the youth’s long search for voice and identity transforms into something transcendent. Without losing any of it’s specificity, the youth’s struggles take on the sheen of allegory. His discovery of public voice tracks the community’s, and the community’s, his.

The Beautiful Room Is Empty